The current crisis in China over tainted milk products, including the furious public reaction inside the country, reminds us how hard it is to govern 1.3 billion. It is clearly against the law in China to put dangerous additives into food products. The problem in China has been and remains how extraordinarily difficult it is for the government to enforce such laws, whether it’s product safety or environmental regulations. At the same time large numbers of Chinese demand such enforcement and seek ways to make their wishes known, difficult in a political system with few outlets for expressing the public will.
Observers have noted, though, that there are signs of change in Beijing. Though they hold one-party power, the country’s leaders know that they have to respond to popular concerns in ways that were not the case in the first decades of communist rule.
This latest example of popular discontent being expressed in China brought to mind an extraordinary conference I attended last December at the Central Party School of the Chinese Communist Party in Beijing on the topic “China’s Democracy and Sino-U.S. Relations.” It was a free-wheeling discussion of what has been a sensitive, at times taboo, subject throughout most of the history of the People’s Republic of China. Although it styles itself as a people’s or socialist democracy, the idea of introducing more democracy into the country’s political system is a relatively recent one, a concept that is controversial and fraught with potential challenges to the current system.
Two days of discussion among well-connected, elite Chinese experts and American scholars and practitioners revealed a genuine desire on the part of the Chinese to make their political system more responsive to the needs of the people. Indeed, one of the Chinese participants’ central themes was that democracy’s essence, as they understood it, was simply good government. While political institutions such as elections and courts were certainly cited by the Chinese as necessary to promote greater democracy, the primary consideration for a more democratic system seemed to be a better ability to deliver the goods — on outcomes rather than institutions.
Among the government reforms that have already been instituted in the last twenty years, participants placed great stress on the economic opening in China that has been so successful in raising living standards. Both the Chinese and the Americans agreed that a strong economic base is necessary for significant progress toward democracy, as well as a catalyst for reform, but the Chinese panelists suggested that a more open economy in itself reflects a more democratic government. Beyond economic reform, participants cited such measures as more regular meetings of government and Party organs like the now established five-year intervals between National Party Congresses, tenure requirements that limit senior and lesser officials to two terms, and new regulations that mandate that standing bodies of Party and government organizations report on their activities to the nominal parent bodies (e.g., the Politburo Standing Committee reporting to the Politburo, which in turn reports to the Party Congress at the national, provincial and local levels). Many of these reforms reflect changes made at recent National Party Congresses, including the 17th NPC last October, when General Secretary Hu Jintao used the term “democracy” over sixty times in his Work Report.
Not surprisingly, many of the American participants suggested that these reforms, important as they have been, do not constitute significant steps toward democracy as we in the West conceive the idea. There was much more emphasis on the need for expanding elections to choose government officials beyond their limited use at the lowest levels, for a judiciary independent from political pressures from government and Party officials, for a more open media environment, for more effective non-governmental organizations, and for a multi-party political system. In the course of making these recommendations, the Americans often heard back from the Chinese agreement that these things are necessary, but caution that they have to be introduced gradually.
There was one exception, not surprising given the venue of the conference: every Chinese participant who raised the question of political parties insisted that, whatever Western theories might call for a multi-party system, it is a fact of life in China that there is a single guiding party and that democratization efforts must accept this fact.
Discussion of Sino-U.S. relations was in many ways the most interesting part of the conference. Both sides acknowledged that more democracy in China would promote better relations between the two countries, but both cautioned that the whole issue of democratization can be a source of tension if not carefully handled. There was a lot of Chinese discussion of American “pressure” on China to democratize, which tended to focus on human rights more than on democracy-building, and this was not considered helpful in promoting good relations. On the other hand, there was some discussion of “good pressure” like the changes that have come about as a result of Permanent Normal Trade Relations and China’s entry into the World Trade Organization. Both sides agreed that some – but only some — elements of the American model of democracy are useful guides for future changes in China and that the kind of institution-building done by the National Endowment for Democracy and such organizations as the Asia Foundation and the Ford Foundation (the sponsor of the conference) should continue.
Despite fundamental differences between the Chinese and the Americans, attendees shared considerable agreement on many things, including the need for China to continue to democratize, if for no other reason than to help its leaders improve responsiveness to the needs of their people; the importance of continued progress in this direction for Sino-American relations; and the need for an appropriate (i.e., limited) American role in this process. It was important, though, that the conference took place at all, and at the place where it did, and both sides agreed that further discussion of the issue between the two countries was necessary as a component of U.S.-China relations.
The current milk powder scandal, with both its domestic and international ramifications, only underscores China’s need to develop a more responsive system of government.
Joseph Snyder is Director of Asia Programs at the Atlantic Council.